As Senate Bill To Help Dozier Families Heads To Floor, House Bill Encounters Some Resistance

Feb 19, 2016

Rep. John Wood (R-Winter Haven)(left) spoke against the Dozier bill by Rep. Ed Narain (D-Tampa), during Tuesday's committee hearing.
Credit Florida Channel

Bills seeking to compensate the families who want to rebury their loved ones found on the property of the now-closed Dozier School for Boys are continuing to move in both chambers of the Florida Legislature. One bill is already headed to the Senate floor.

During Thursday’s Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, Sen. Oscar Braynon (D-Miami Gardens) presented for bill sponsor, Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa).

“This is the bill about the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, and we’ve all heard the stories,” said Braynon. “This bill helps us to move forward.”

The Dozier School for Boys in Marianna is surrounded by a history of alleged abuse and the site of the bodies of boys believed to have died from the alleged abuse.

University of South Florida researchers found the remains of 51 people, after excavating 55 unmarked graves on the Dozier grounds. And, they’ve already identified seven boys through DNA.

Now, the goal is to make sure those who have been matched with the remains have the proper funds to rebury their loved ones. Joyner’s bill provides up to $7,500 to do just that.

The bill also directs where the historical records and archives should be kept. In addition, the measure calls for the Dozier Task Force to create a memorial for the unclaimed remains and come up with the memorial’s location.

Braynon changed the measure to add to the task force’s membership: a group of alleged abuse survivors.

“The amendment simply adds a member of the task force who will be appointed by the Commissioner of Agriculture,” he added. “This member will represent what was known as the White House Boys, the children who were at the interest of the at-risk youth.”

Former Senate President Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) says this issue is important to him, as it’s in his district. And, he says he hopes Joyner will entertain adding others to the task force as well as another change.

“By the time this bill gets to the floor, I may have an amendment—which I hope will be a friendly amendment—that would provide the land that is not set aside for memorial purposes, whatever that section of land might be, could be used by the community for a civic or educational or economic development purposes,” Gaetz said.

Gaetz’ idea may be a bit problematic because a final report given to the Florida Cabinet last month states there are areas of the property that are toxic.

Still, after passing the committee unanimously, the measure is now slated to be taken up by the full Senate Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the House bill by Rep. Ed Narain (D-Tampa) encountered a bit of resistance during its second hearing.   Rep. John Wood (R-Winter Haven) says he has some concerns.

“Could you comment on the fact that the FDLE investigated all of the circumstances surrounding what could have transpired so may years ago at the school,” he asked.

Back in 2009, the FDLE had found that there was no criminal wrongdoing. But, last year, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam asked them to reopen the investigation. And, an FDLE spokesman says that investigation is still ongoing.

Meanwhile, there have been claims bills by Republicans and Democrats filed in the past that never went anywhere to compensate the alleged abuse survivors of Dozier.

But, Narain told Wood that’s not the case with his bill. And, he adds his goal is to give some measure of closure to the families to rebury their loved ones.

“It would allow the state of Florida basically to give a proper goodbye to their loved ones,” he said. “When you consider that these folks, these families sent their children away only to be told that those children ran away. Years later, we found out that they didn’t run away. They were actually dead, whoever it may have occurred, but they’re buried on the property. All we’re trying to do is try to give those families a measure of respect and allow them to do the right thing and to have a proper farewell.”

But, Wood didn’t appear to be convinced by Narain’s argument.

“This school was there beginning in 1900, and we had no idea when these behaviors that are alleged,” he said. “It’s just so difficult to apply the standards of today to behavior of the past. And, so for that reason, I just think when we start engaging in that type of activity, that while…I get the emotion of what you talk about closure and all of these things going on, but we’re really talking about a much different time, a very long time ago. And, I’m not sure this is the productive thing for our society.”

But, Rep. Jeanette Nunez (R-Miami) disagrees.

“Quite frankly, I think right is right and wrong is wrong, and time and history doesn’t change that,” said Nunez. “And, so, certainly the tragedies that occurred are wrong in today’s standards and they were wrong in those standards. And, so, with that reason, I support this bill, and urge everyone to do the same.”

Still, the bill passed the House Appropriations Committee 22-1 with Wood opposed. And, the House measure now has one more stop before heading to the floor.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.